Virtual realm

A Jewish communal Zoom reset

In Short

Let's raise the Zoom bar

Every Friday morning, I journey into prehistoric times. Seventy-five families from across the hexa-state area gather together with their kids—and dinosaurs–for a Shabbat music class where I facilitate the back-end of the Zoom. Each dinosaur puppet, along with the child or grownup holding it, is momentarily spotlighted during a song about a dinosaur getting ready for Shabbat. The simple act of spotlighting gives each family a chance to be seen at a moment where feeling seen is at an all-time low—from the lack of in-person gatherings and to masks covering up much of our faces. These families transcend being multiple squares on a grid; they are an engaged part of a class community.

Having attended Jewish Zoom events in recent weeks, from small simchas hosted by families to large communal Zooms, I think it might be time for a communal Zoom reset. Since Zoom will likely not be going away anytime soon, especially for multi-generational events, here are a few Zoom tools to maximize engagement—no Zoom gurus-required!

1) Panim El Panim: Face-to-Face

Last week I joined a Zoom for a large Jewish organization with three panelists. When I arrived, I noticed that the panelists’ videos were visible but that the participants’ names and videos were not visible at all. Participants’ anonymity was an invitation to multitask or disconnect from this event. Enabling participants to see each other face-to-face would have created an opportunity for participant engagement and investment in this particular event. I hope we can find ways for us to see one another on Zoom programs, especially when the technology makes it so easy to do so.

2) Sever Panim Yafot: Cheerfulness

I recently attended a lifecycle event hosted by a family. At the end of the event, a family member from the simcha asked participants to send a “mazel tov” chat so that the family could know who had attended the simcha (the host of the Zoom would send a digest of the chat to the family). In addition to a quick chat, families could ask a friend to spotlight participants at the end of their simcha. The host could scroll through the carousel of screens and spotlight folks waving to the family (even while playing a pre-recorded song in the background). This technique would build cheerful momentum at the conclusion of the event and also give family members to see their guests in real-time. The moment of being spotlighted could enable participants, like the families with their dinosaurs, to feel a deeper connection to the celebration and to other participants.

3) Hineni: Being Present

I’ve attended several Zooms where the host “unmutes” everyone at the end of the program. What ensues is that everyone tries to say “Mazel tov!” or “Have a good night!” at the same time. Since Zoom can’t accommodate multiple voices, some folks don’t pop up, leaving participants vying for screen time with the celebrants. A quick wave via spotlighting is an easier way to enable participants to be present and to say “Hineni,” “I am here”—without the cacophony.

4) Simcha: Joy

For any program or celebration, hosted by individuals or by any Jewish organization, perhaps we can think about incorporating more elements of simcha (joy)–from a surprise guest (human or animal), to movement, to music, to costumes. Giving participants a reason to smile and feel like they are a part of something special goes a long way in the world of Zoom!

My hope is that we can raise the Zoom bar to find more ways to creatively be present with one another in the Jewish virtual realm. The dinosaurs are only a tool—the magic is in the smiles and connectedness of us all.

Rabbi Yael Buechler is the Lower School Rabbi at The Leffell School in Westchester where she facilitates a twice-a-week Zoom for young families. Rabbi Buechler is also the founder of MidrashManicures.com.